Petrified of Interviewing Experts? Here’s How to Find Your Nerve

Carol Tice

Scared of interviewing? These tips will help.There is one skill that separates the wannabes from the well-paid freelance writers.

That talent is interviewing — particularly, the ability to get memorable quotes from high-profile people. Leading experts, actors, rock stars, CEOs of $1 billion companies, presidents, big-time gurus, and the people who know them. Those types of folks.

This is a skill I learned early, and it’s helped me earn well as a freelance writer. Here are my three big tips for how to interview experts:

1) Realize that celebrities are just people

The first step to feeling comfortable interviewing prominent people is to realize that they are human, just like you. Yes, their circumstances are different, but you can always find some common denominator, some icebreaker, that will put you on an even footing.

For instance, this summer, Forbes flew me to North Dakota to interview the state’s richest man, a hotel magnate worth over $1 billion. It was a $2,800 assignment.

When I arrived in Fargo, I quickly discovered that we are both older parents with school-age kids. He schedules his work hours so he’s home for after-school hours, just like me. Also, before he bought that first motel, he was an insurance salesman — and so was my dad.

Take any two humans, and they’ve got something in common. Find it, and the whole climate relaxes, and you can get your source to tell you whatever you need to know.

2) Practice talking to bigwigs

The way I came to realization #1 is that I spent a lot of time talking to celebrities. I highly recommend this as a way to stop being intimidated by powerful people.

You see, when I was in my very early twenties, I was a legal secretary at the William Morris Agency and at MGM/UA.

This meant Buddy Hackett would be in the food-truck line with me, shooting the breeze, dressed in overalls. I’d be in an Oscar betting pool with super-agent Stan Kamen. Or Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner would be in an agent meeting, and I’d come in and take notes. TV producer Fred Silverman would come in to pitch an idea. I’d be chatting up Brian DiPalma while he waited for my boss, a director’s agent, to finish up a phone call.

I once spent a day at Barbra Streisand’s Malibu complex, typing up show scripts for an upcoming concert she was putting on. While I was there, a pair of my idols, songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman, stopped by. (I knew I’d be talking to Barbra, but I’ll admit the Bergmans had me tongue-tied!)

My husband worked in TV, too, and we once went to a party at Jack Haley Jr.’s house in the Hollywood hills. And to a Night of 100 Stars-type gala. I wore a black satin evening dress I got at a thrift store, and spent the night on a dance floor with Liza Minnelli, Jaclyn Smith, Jimmy Stewart, and dozens of other stars.

Do enough of this, and you simply become acclimatized. You’re not standing around with your mouth hanging open, or pointing, or shouting, “Look, it’s so-and-so!” when you see a celebrity. You stop acting like an idiot around them. You become able to make small talk and look them in the eye.

Then, you can prepare a list of questions and interview them, and it’ll go just fine.

3) Prepare to follow up

One big fear in talking to celebrities is that you’ll make some kind of mistake, or you’ll forget to ask something important. If that’s your worry, fuggedaboutit.

Celebrities have heard it all. Your screwup won’t even be a blip on their radar. They’ve also done a lot of interviews — so they know it’s routine for you to circle back and ask more questions.

For my Forbes piece, I was asked to do five different drafts, which were edited by three different people. Each draft required new facts! I was on email and the phone with the billionaire for days on end.

This. Is. Normal. My subject never once complained — he even called me back once from the Mall of America, where his family was out shopping. Celebrities know the drill.

Learn to relax while interviewing

I thought all my elbow-rubbing with the stars had nothing to do with my subsequent life as a journalist. Until I got a staff job covering business, and was asked to interview Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, Blake Nordstrom, and Costco’s Jeff Brotman.

I knew other reporters quaked in their boots at the idea of doing these heavy-hitter CEO interviews. But I didn’t. I had been celebrity-proofed by my showbiz experience.

So: Ask a CEO when his company will stop losing money, or why they sell goods from sweatshops, or how much of their net worth they lost in the ’08 downturn? No problem.

Also, once you’ve interviewed movie stars or politicians, it’ll be nothing to you to ask an expert in animal husbandry or rocket science or infectious diseases for a quick quote for an article.

Expert interviews are infinitely easier to cope with, because there are always other experts you could get, if your first one doesn’t pan out. Where if your editor wants Channing Tatum and you can’t get him, you’re screwed.

Ways to rub shoulders

You may be thinking — but how could I ever get a chance to talk to a lot of expert types? There are plenty of opportunities:

  • Consider working on a political campaign for an incumbent candidate.
  • Go to book signings with prominent authors.
  • Go to conventions such as Comic-Con, where you can talk to movie stars, game creators, and other notables.
  • Attend movie or play premieres where the actors will be doing a Q&A afterwards.
  • Intern with a PR firm that handles celebrities.

When you find yourself hanging out with a prominent person, strike up a conversation. Or ask one question, even.

Yes, the top celebrities will be hard to get on the phone. But you’ll be surprised how many celebrities will agree to be interviewed by you. Even billionaires who own 26 hotels. I can vouch.

Big tip: Develop a story angle that appeals to them. Say you’ll write about their efforts for their favorite charity, or their new perfume. Do your research and find out what interests and excites them right now, and you’ll open doors.

Develop a knack for getting — and nailing — the celebrity interview, and you’ll open the doors to some great-paying freelance writing assignments.

Ever interviewed a celebrity? Share how you got the gig  in the comments.

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  1. Evan Jensen

    Of the handful of semi-famous people I’ve interviewed over the years, I was most intimidated by an interview I did with Matt “The Law” Lindland. Why? He made big money literally beating people into submission, breaking bones, knocking people unconscious, sending people to the hospital, etc. as an Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter. At the time, his fighting career was at a tipping point and he was planning to run for a state representative position in Oregon.

    It was a lot easier to reach him than I thought it would be. I just called his MMA gym and left a message. A day later he calls back and sets up a meeting time at a local coffee shop. He insisted on buying my drink, and candidly answered questions about his family, fighting career, MMA gym, and political aspirations. A week later, he stopped by the newspaper office to thank me for writing the story and buy a huge stack of papers.

    “Realize that celebrities are just people.” It’s great advice that can really help you get your mind right before an interview. If you get anxious about conducting an interview, that’s OK. But don’t let that stop you from setting up that meeting or scheduling that phone call.

    • Carol Tice

      LOVE that story, Evan! Yeah, we all remember the time John Stossel got cold-cocked by a wrestler he asked whether it was all fake…but most people are good people to talk to. 😉

  2. Theodore Nwangene

    Great post as always Carol,
    Finding the nerve to interview experts is really not a bad idea at all even though is not easy but one thing to always note is that they won’t kill you if you try.

    However, i can see you’re really good at it and I’m sure it feels soooo good.

    Though I’ve never done it before but i know its something i will love to do if the opportunity arises. The only problem that i usually find is knowing where and how to meet them.

    But i will try the suggestions you gave here and see how it goes.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Rebecca Flansburg

    The first real interview-type story I ever did for a major magazine was an Emmy-award winning news anchor who had interviewed President Obama. I was shaking in my boots, but she was the nicest, sweetest person I had met in a long time. Once her article was done I sent it to her to review and she responded, “You nailed it.” A success and lesson I will never forget 🙂 NOW, interviewing people and businesses is the type of freelance work I truly love to do and I can’t wait to expand upon it.

    • Carol Tice

      People forget that sources may be nervous about talking to! It’s normal.

  4. Mel

    I 100% agree with everything you wrote, Carol! Although it was accidental, I did everything above on my way to becoming a freelancer. 🙂

    Back in 2007, my BFF and I decided to launch some fansites covering various TV shows we were interested in (we live 1,000 miles apart, so this was something we could do together without being in the same location). A few months in, we thought it would be fun to interview some of the people on the shows. Going in with the attitude that “the worst they can say is ‘no'”, we started contacting managers and publicists and requesting interviews. Surprise, surprise, we started getting interviews! There have been butterflies and quiet freaking out amongst ourselves, but as you said, you quickly learn that they’re people, too. I think that’s the reason for our tremendous success in interviewing celebrities – we treat them like people who happen to be good at their jobs and have something to share about their experiences.

    Since then I’ve interviewed 100+ actors, writers, showrunners, etc. I even used clips from my fansite interviews to land my first paid freelancing gig!

    Now I interview C-level executives of Fortune 500 companies and owners of successful “small” businesses (this week alone I’ve interviewed two small biz owners with companies each managing $1 Billion+ in assets), I’ve interviewed the administrator of the Small Business Administration who sits on the President’s cabinet, I’ve been thanked and complimented and invited out for drinks “next time you’re in town” by people I’ve interviewed, one huge company now asks for me specifically to interview and write about their executives… Sometimes I still get butterflies, but then I remind myself that they’re people, too, and they have a story to share.

    (And yes, I do go to Comic Con every year and “rub shoulders” with all sorts of celebrities and fans. It’s one of my favorite weeks of the year. 🙂 )

    • Carol Tice

      LOL! We’ve decided we’re taking the tweens and going to the Seattle Comic Con in April.

      Thanks for sharing your story — writers should know we *all* get butterflies. Just do it anyway! It’s fun to meet interesting people. 😉

  5. tiffany

    Thanks for this, Carol. I am to interview the CEO of one of the top real estate developers in the country, and this put me at ease. Thanks!

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